A note on archaeology and racism

I know that this is primarily a blog for sharing the above and below ground archaeology of Christchurch’s colonial period, but it felt wrong to post something this week without acknowledging and engaging with what has been happening in the world, especially the need to re-examine and actively combat racism and white supremacy in modern society. This is a big topic and one I am skimming the surface of, specifically in relation to historical archaeology and my own personal responsibility to change. Please also go and read the words of black Americans in the United States right now, of Māori and Pasifika here in New Zealand, of indigenous and people of colour everywhere.

(TL;DR – racism is a thing in archaeology, archaeology can be part of the problem, we have a responsibility to make sure it’s not; highly recommend reading all the links at the end).

English-made mustard jar, depicting scene between Uncle Tom and Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a Prattware jar found in Christchurch, made in the 1850s, depicting a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist, anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an object that speaks to the history of racism and slavery and oppression in America, and the place of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the abolitionist history of the nineteenth century. It is also, however, an object of British colonialism, one that embodies a tradition of European people co-opting the imagery of black lives, embracing simplistic racialised stereotypes of other cultures, from the concept of a subservient “Tom” or the derogatory performance of blackface to the whole offensive notion of the ‘noble savage’. It is part of a LONG culture-history of systemic racism that has minimalised and dehumanised people of colour, contributing to the unequal and deadly society of today.

The last time I posted a photograph of this artefact, I did so with a caption that acknowledged the relationship of the jar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but failed to look deeper into the appropriation and legacy of that imagery. Listening and watching and reading over the last week, since the murder of George Floyd, and over the last years, since March 15 2019, since Charlottesville, since Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and countless others (because this has been happening for too long), I’ve thought a lot – as I hope a lot of other Pākehā have – about what I can do, to be part of the solution and not the problem. Mostly, the answer is to support, to amplify and to speak out, to stand up in solidarity and to call out racism when I see it. But, thinking about this jar and my framing of its story, I’m also conscious of storytelling and the power of words, and archaeology, to shape histories and attitudes and unconscious biases, of how much the way we tell our histories maintains that systemic, structural racism.

As an archaeologist, especially an archaeologist whose specialty is the colonial period of New Zealand’s history, one of the things I can do, professionally, is actively decolonise the language I use, be anti-racist in the way I tell the story of the space and time I investigate. I can look deeper, beneath the surface of an object or an event, to always place the work I do on the material culture of European colonial society alongside the violence perpetrated by that society against Māori and against people of colour around the world. I can better acknowledge that archaeology is itself a discipline with roots in the exploitation of indigenous and non-European culture for the sake of European curiosity and profit, something we ignore too often. Historical archaeology in particular is sometimes, I think, so focused on the humanity and story of colonial settlers that we ignore, or downplay, the uglier side of their complicity in a deliberately racist system. We should not.

Archaeologists talk about how “absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence”. It’s a nice catchy phrase that reminds us to think about how the archaeological record – the deposits, the impressions left on the land – was curated by the behaviour of people in the past (it is NOT an excuse for conspiracy theories about archaeological cover-ups, which replace an absence of evidence with speculation that has no grounding in historical reality). Sometimes, the reasons for an absence of archaeological evidence are as telling as the actual evidence might have been and I’ve been thinking about this in historical archaeology, in colonial archaeology, in Christchurch. Māori are essentially invisible in the archaeological record of Ōtautahi Christchurch during the 1850-1900 period. Every single archaeological site in my dataset was occupied by European settlers, every single artefact is European or Pākehā in origin. That invisibility is not benign, not just the way it is, but is instead the result of the deliberate and, in many parts of New Zealand, forcible alienation and removal of Māori from the land and its subsequent archaeological record (it is also a consequence of the European erasure of Māori archaeology from the footprint of Christchurch during the nineteenth century). The predominance of European material culture in post-1850 Christchurch is not something that just can be explained away as a characteristic of that time: it’s a characteristic of that time because it was imposed on the land, a tool of British colonialism in New Zealand. The invisibility of Māori in my dataset doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to talk about negative effects of colonisation in Christchurch – if anything, it makes it more important that I acknowledge and discuss the systems and structures that led to that invisibility in the first place.  

I’m afraid of confrontation. I hate it, I’m terrible at it and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Writing this post has been a huge source of anxiety and I’m worried about what I’ve said and whether it’s enough or whether it’s too much, but it would be worse to stay silent. People are dying, people are being beaten, people here in New Zealand are suffering as a result of a socio-cultural system that has benefited me, because of my birth and my skin, and allowed me to use my discomfort as a reason not to speak out about the injustice that they are facing, even though I know it’s wrong. It is not okay. The very least that I can do is shoulder that discomfort, knowing that it will never be even a fraction of what is experienced by people of colour all the time, and use what little voice I have to amplify theirs, to actively question and deconstruct the racist systems – the bias, the assumptions, the unconscious conditioning – that I see, in my own work and in the world around me.


NB// None of this is anything new, so here are some links, to writing that challenged me and to people who have written about this all better than I ever will:

On the futility of ‘goodness’ in a racist society – https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a32712287/cnn-omar-jimenez-arrest-response/

Everything on e-tangata, but especially this https://e-tangata.co.nz/history/the-land-of-the-wrong-white-crowd-growing-up-and-living-in-the-shadow-of-racism/, this https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/racism-and-white-defensiveness-in-aotearoa-a-pakeha-perspective/, and these, on police violence against Māori and Pasifika, https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/we-dont-have-to-go-down-this-path/ and https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/partnership-is-critical-during-a-crisis/

On institutional racism in New Zealand – https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/the-racism-that-too-few-of-the-privileged-can-see/, and colonialism and racism – https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/moana-jackson-understanding-racism-in-this-country/

This, on the recent destruction of Juukan Gorge in Australia https://theconversation.com/destruction-of-juukan-gorge-we-need-to-know-the-history-of-artefacts-but-it-is-more-important-to-keep-them-in-place-139650 and this, on Ihumātao https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/when-worlds-collide-2/

An amazing resource for Māori place names and history in Ōtautahi Christchurch and throughout the South Island – http://www.kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas

Anti-racism resources for white people https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/preview?pru=AAABcoVnEEc*g_KKl6pycPL5FuYxjxWfWQ

On the character and construct of Uncle Tom:

A JSTOR syllabus of articles on institutionalized racism: https://daily.jstor.org/institutionalized-racism-a-syllabus/?fbclid=IwAR0XqLV-pRS9aFSazieLHP2nGmRpFryEszsiYsd58qQeErrL6jriPqOFugI

On race, racism, protest and activism in anthropology and archaeology – https://www.americananthro.org/StayInformed/OAArticleDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=13103

Toward an anti-racist archaeology – https://activisthistory.com/2019/09/27/toward-an-antiracist-archeology/

In New Zealand, more generally, anything by Leonie Hayden, Damon Salesa, Morgan Godfery, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Moana Maniopoto and Moana Jackson, among many others.

Internationally, there are so many books and articles and lists of resources out there on the internet. I’ve personally loved and been challenged by the works of people like Ta Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou and Maxine Beneba Clarke.

2 thoughts on “A note on archaeology and racism

  1. Bill McIntyre

    Hi Jessie,
    Very interesting comments you make , I guess we are all thinking about this embedded racism at the moment. I was wondering your views on Kylen Gorge destruction. As I understand it, of 460 sites have been given consent for destruction out of 460 applied for in WA. My question is , if these were colonial sites, how much more likely would they be to be saved. Somewhere like Juuken could arguably be one of the most significant sites in Australia.I’ll be delving into some of that reading. Great, good on you Jessie!
    Take care, Bill


    1. Jessie

      Thanks for reading it! I don’t know a lot about the heritage protection laws of WA, but from what I’ve heard, that’s a complicated question, because they might not have the same degree of legislation around colonial sites there? More broadly, I’ve definitely heard discussions on how visible colonial sites – like monuments, for example – will be saved in the face of development, while Aboriginal landscapes, archaeology and intangible heritage are destroyed. On the legal destruction of sites like Juuken Gorge, Jacinta Koolmatrie’s article is a good outline of the clash between legal responsibility and the indigenous and archaeological significance of a place. Hope you’re doing well 🙂


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